In a matter of two weeks, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s reputation has slid from that of smug Emmy Award winner to mastermind of a cover-up of COVID-19 deaths in New York nursing homes.
The state’s political world was rocked last week when Michelle DeRosa, the governor’s top aide, was recorded telling state legislators that the Cuomo administration had stonewalled their demand for the real number of nursing-home deaths.
DeRosa admitted that ‘basically, we froze’ out of fear of a US Justice Department investigation into how thousands of nursing home patients had died. A ProPublica investigation had found that Cuomo’s March 25 mandate that state nursing homes admit coronavirus patients was akin to ‘introducing fire to dry grass’. An investigation by the state’s Democratic attorney general found that the real numbers boosted the official nursing-home death toll by more than 50 percent, to what is now a total of 13,432. New York State only has some 100,000 patients in nursing homes.
This Tuesday, nine Democratic members of New York’s State Assembly accused Cuomo of federal obstruction of justice in a letter asking that he be stripped of his COVID-19 emergency powers when they expire in April.
The legislators denounced what they called a ‘criminal use of power’ and said ‘it is now unambiguously clear that this governor has engaged in an intentional obstruction of justice’.
‘It’s not safe to have someone like Cuomo have extraordinary powers,’ Democratic Assemblyman Ron Kim of Queens bluntly told reporters. ‘He cares more about his own political and personal wellbeing than the most vulnerable members of our community.’ Ouch.
You’d think such developments would lead reporters to prepare pieces about what the odds are of Cuomo making a Nixon-like exit from power on a helicopter. But Cuomo governs New York, which is now a classic one-party state in which accountability is rare and in which he holds enormous control over its budget and patronage.
Cuomo certainly isn’t going willingly. During his Monday news conference he went into attack mode in rejecting calls for an independent probe: ‘There is nothing to investigate.’ He even accused Democratic state legislators of trying to coerce information from his administration by threatening the use of subpoenas. ‘That’s a crime, it’s called abuse of process, it’s called extortion.’
With bully-boy tactics like that, Cuomo knows he can likely intimidate the overwhelmingly Democratic legislature into dropping any idea of impeaching him. Unlike California, New York makes no provision for voters to recall a governor.
Cuomo is up for reelection in 2022, and all signs are that he wants to pursue the fourth term that eluded his father Mario when he was governor in the 1990s.
The scandal is young, but it has already hurt Cuomo’s ratings. The new Siena College poll found 55 percent of voters view Cuomo negatively on his handling of the nursing home data. As for renewing his lease on power, 46 percent are prepared to reelect while 45 percent say they would ‘prefer someone else’.
But as the old adage goes, you can’t beat someone with nobody. Cuomo steamrollered over progressive actress Cynthia Nixon (of Sex and the City) in the 2018 Democratic primary with 66 percent of the vote. If the pandemic is in the rear-view mirror next year and he retains the support of public employee unions, it’s unlikely a top-shelf Democrat will take Cuomo on.
But Republicans believe they have an opportunity against Cuomo even though recent demographic changes and their institutional weakness weigh against that. Democrats dominate the state, holding 19 congressional districts to only eight for the GOP.
Nonetheless, two women are being touted as attractive GOP candidates for governor.
Rep. Elise Stefanik has made a name for herself attacking ‘cancel culture’ after she was booted off an advisory panel by Harvard University, her alma mater. At age 36, she is a fresh face.
Janice Dean, the chief meteorologist at Fox News, became the public spokesman for the families of seniors who died in nursing homes during the pandemic. She was moved to do so by the death of her own in-laws to COVID-19 while they were in nursing homes. She has media savvy and could attract voter interest through her personal crusade.
For his part, Cuomo’s political assets include a complete lack of shame and extraordinary ruthlessness. But New Yorkers could tire of his act. They know their state is in a slow but steady decline which has only accelerated during his decade in power.
‘If crime continues to go up and public schools don’t fully reopen you could see both New York City and suburban voters rebelling in 2024,’ former New York GOP State Chairman Ed Cox, the son-in-law of the late President Nixon, told me.
Ronald Reagan once said voters are moved to throw out incumbents when they realize ‘the status quo is really Latin for “the mess we’re in”’. Andrew Cuomo better hope that voters don’t come to feel the same way about New York’s ‘Status Cuomo’.